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Shaheen: Health care system needs healing

ROCHESTER — Local health care officials, social service agencies and business leaders called Monday for politicians to “heal the system” and to stop overlooking and underfunding substance abuse prevention efforts.

The pleas came during a roundtable discussion at Frisbie Memorial Hospital organized by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. The session was designed as a way for Shaheen to solicit information about how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would hurt the Rochester community and New Hampshire as a whole, beyond the fact that an estimated 13 million Americans could lose coverage under the replacement plan currently being discussed in the U.S. Congress.

New Hampshire is already among the worst at funding substance abuse prevention. Locals told Shaheen that repealing the ACA will only worsen the state’s opioid crisis if the process doesn’t include talk and funding for prevention services. They said that’s because cutting overall healthcare funding and access will guarantee there will be little to no money for the crisis’s under-recognized contributing factors, which also include mental health services and student loan repayment assistance.

“There has to be something for our children so they can be educated about prevention and be brought up with knowledge about what happens,” said Greg Hopkins, the president of financial services for HBL Group and someone who has been working closely with local substance abuse agencies. “I think sometimes it’s lost. One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is we have to get to the younger children about prevention. That’s the way to stop these things.”

Monday’s panel included a number of key Frisbie personnel, Frisbie board members and the New Hampshire Hospital Association. Also present were representatives from Community Partners, New Futures, Rochester Community Recovery Center, Hope on Haven Hill, and other agencies who say their programs would be devastated in various ways by the ACA’s repeal.

Shaheen, who visited Portsmouth Regional Hospital last week for a similar discussion with Portsmouth-area leaders, agreed that substance-abuse prevention is a necessary resource.

She said the government wrongly allocates significant sums on jails and other reactionary things that don’t address the problem’s roots, rather than getting out in front and investing in less costly and more effective early childhood prevention efforts.

“I always say if you don’t do something because it’s the right thing to do, you should do something because it’s the economic thing to do,” said Shaheen.

In addition to expressing concerns about the uncertainty surrounding the ACA’s proposed replacement, local leaders also spoke at length about the state of mental health services in New Hampshire. After the success Frisbie has seen in the past year with its Rochester Community Recovery Center, the hospital will partner with Community Partners later this year to open a mental health center in downtown Rochester.

Community Partners Executive Director Brian Collins told Shaheen Monday that state legislators have “strangled” mental health programs for a number of years, which in large numbers has led individuals with mental health disorders to self medicate with controlled substances.

Recent statistics indicate 80 percent of individuals with substance abuse issues, including alcohol, also have mental health issues.

In addition to the limited services available, Collins said New Hampshire’s problem is worsened by the fact that individuals are discouraged from becoming social workers and counselors because the field doesn’t pay well and there are no tuition relief programs.

“There are systemic issues tied (to this),” said Collins, calling on Shaheen to explore federal pilot programs to bring this funding to the Granite State. “If you don’t understand what the future needs are for the community, we’re turning away people who can help and enter the field. It’s critical for our staff. For what we pay, it’s unbelievable. We know they’ll never get out of (their debt) and buy a home.”

Linda Saunders of New Futures, a nonprofit and nonpartisan health advocacy group, said the issue also has other economic impacts on New Hampshire’s workforce.

In 2014, the most recent year available, substance abuse cost the state’s economy $2.35 billion, most of which was due to lost work and productivity, according to Saunders. She said that doesn’t include another $604 million spent in connection with substance abuse deaths.

“The vast majority of the burden was borne by businesses, and there were costs in healthcare and the criminal justice systems as well,” she said. “Should we lose access to healthcare, those costs are going to increase.”

Shaheen urged attendees Monday to contact their local legislators and health care providers to ask that they do more to work together to address the issues. Shaheen said that’s been a key missing piece during discussions about the ACA.

“I do think we need to see something that provides insurance for people,” she said. “People right now aren’t willing to say, ‘We need to provide coverage for everyone.’”